Backstreet Boys, we hardly knew ye

Plagued by sagging ticket sales and a dearth of hits, the former sensations are heading rapidly to that Great Back Alley from whence no teen-pop act returns. And the sarongs aren't helping.

Published June 15, 2001 6:13PM (EDT)

Stick a fork in the Backstreet Boys. They're done.

After disappointing winter album sales, a spring in which they were AWOL from pop radio and a poorly rated network television special, now comes word that the already scaled-back summer tour from the former poster boys of teen pop is languishing badly.

Conceived last fall as a stadium tour -- when the group still occupied the megastar sphere -- the band's summer swing will instead feature smaller arenas and amphitheaters. But even in the smaller venues, sales still appear soft.

Forget sellouts. There are none yet for the act's 45-city summer tour. In fact, good seats are still available for most shows. Want to see the Backstreet Boys in Albany, N.Y., in June, or in Boston in July? You can still buy choice seats on the floor! And lots of them -- in what may be the worst concert booking of the year, the Boys are scheduled for five nights at Boston's Fleet Center; one night, two at the most, would probably have satisfied market demand.

The Boys have two simple problems: no hit singles combined with a muddied image. But the collapse of the band also raises some larger questions. Are the slacking sales the first hint of a coming teen pop crash? And just how much loyalty do teens have to their favorite icons?

Trouble in Backstreet Boy land began late last year with the release of their much-anticipated album, "Black & Blue." Because the act's previous release, "Millennium," sold more than 1 million copies in its first week in stores, helping to define the burgeoning genre of teen pop, much was expected from the new album.

But little happened. Accustomed to spending months inside the top 10 of Billboard's 200 album chart, the Backstreet Boys must have watched in horror as their latest slid out of the high rent district after just three weeks. Two weeks ago "Black & Blue" stood at No. 110, sharing chart space alongside the likes of Jessica Andrews, Angie Martinez, Billy Gilman and JT Money. Not exactly household names.

So does that mean the teen pop juggernaut is running out of steam? It's too early to say. Sales of the most recent 'N Sync and Britney Spears albums have cooled over time. But new efforts by Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore are due in stores soon and should sell well. But even if their current numbers are good, they should all be nervous, because the real lesson of the BSB story is just how tenuous the connection is between young pop fans and their favorite acts.

"Black & Blue's" first single, "The Shape of My Heart," barely cracked the top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100. For an established pop radio act, such relative failure is taboo territory, because the music business operates on the simple theory that perception is reality. "It proved they were vulnerable," says one pop radio source, who notes that programmers, jammed with too many songs and not enough space on their station playlists, are often itching for reasons to say no to songs. "Now they're quick to say the last one sucked."

BSB's follow-up single, the up-tempo dance song "The Call," proved a disaster on radio. It peaked at No. 53 its third week out and promptly made a U-turn down the charts. The band's latest single, "More Than That," has climbed to No. 38.

The radio rough patch hurt the band's touring business. Concert promoters today stress the correlation between having hit singles on the radio at the exact same time that summer concert tickets go on sale. Acts with hot singles sell more concert tickets. Those without do not.

Just ask the Boys. A surf through shows that prime, top-tier tickets in groups of four, and in some cases even groups of eight, are easily available for June and July BSB concerts in Denver, Nashville, Raleigh, N.C., Greensboro, N.C., and Indianapolis. Not to mention the chunk of floor seats -- usually the first ones snatched up by fans -- available in Albany and Boston. An SFX spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Don't feel too bad for the Boys. Industry sources suggest national concert promoter SFX is guaranteeing the act roughly $700,000 per show, regardless of how many fans show up. That's a goodly sum, even if it is down from the $1 million per night fee the band was set to receive before the tour had to be scaled back due to poor record sales.

(And if it makes BSB feel any better, 'N Sync's summer stadium tour is also selling softly in markets such as Cleveland, Denver, Little Rock, Ark., Tampa, Fla., and Miami; the 'N Sync boys are getting an estimated $1.4 million per night from SFX.)

But there is also the Boys' image problem. Restless with their teen pop crown and anxious to expand their audience, at the time of the "Black & Blue" release the Boys talked endlessly about how the new album marked the group's maturation. Together with a bold new wardrobe -- sarongs! -- and daring haircuts, the Boys positioned themselves for an older audience. But all they ended up doing was alienating their younger fan base.

Ultimately, the music itself was indistinguishable from all the other formulaic pop offerings, which meant that the older audience the Boys aspired to shrugged their collective shoulders, while their teen mainstays felt rebuffed by the act's new adult image. Basically, the Boys got their signals crossed.

And they continue to do so. The Boys recently aired a prime-time network television special that was short on gee-whiz productions and long on ballads. And it was on CBS, the network traditionally known for attracting the oldest audience. Yet just last week the Boys announced their summer tour would be sponsored by a kiddie standby, Kellogg's Pop-Tarts.

"Black & Blue" did receive a modest sales spike in the wake of the CBS special. But the program was a commercial disappointment, the 63rd-most-watched show for the television week. (Perhaps the Boys' special belonged on the younger-skewing Fox, while Barbra Streisand's recent, poorly rated Fox concert should have aired on CBS.)

Commercially, the only question left for the Backstreet Boys is: When does the first solo album come out?

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------